“You won’t tell him, will you?” I said.
“Tell him what?” Leda asked sharply.
It was hard to put into words. “What I was like,” I said. What I meant was: What I looked like.
“What do you mean?” Leda said. “You were a perfectly nice young girl, as far as I could tell.”
“No, I mean… my shape. I was, you know.” I couldn’t say “fat”; I used that word about myself only in my head.
She saw what I meant, but it only amused her. “Is that all?” she said. “To my mind it’s a perfectly proper shape. But don’t worry, I won’t give away your past, though I must say there are worse tragedies in life than being a little overweight.”
Given our ranking as one of the world’s most obese nations, the United States has come into a minor obsession with weight. This obsession has spawned both good and bad initiatives: an attempt to bring healthier meals and healthier life skills into schools is almost counteracted by the almost pornographic voyeurism of such shows as “The Biggest Loser.” Feminist advocacy groups have productively attacked stereotypes and hate speech geared towards overweight women, while at the same time perhaps allowing too leniently a culture of “you’re perfect no matter what” that doesn’t encourage changing unhealthy habits. As we research more in the medical field, we understand that supposedly universal notions of healthiness should actually be narrowed to a comprehensive understanding of each individual, in more than just proper weight (studies show that some individuals are making a better health decision by sleeping less than normal expectations, or by being heavier than normal classification, or by eating more of something we may deem “bad for you.”) What has also sprung from attention paid to what has become an almost iconic representation of American culture is a whole wealth of fascinating mythology, from the blubbery humans in Wall-E to the fetishized overweight pornographic actresses.
Unfortunately, too often in literature does the issue of weight become flattened in dimension and simplified in complexity, precisely because writers believe they need to write ABOUT weight. I am not interested in reading about an obese woman, I’m interested in reading about a woman who is obese (this is my biggest pet peeve for most of modern “performance poetry,” but that’s a whole other blog post). Margaret Atwood achieves just that balance in her character of Joan Foster.
The novel follows Joan as she fakes her own death and escapes unwanted fame as a Feminist poet. In similar style to Homer’s Odyssey, we are given the present day scenario, and then travel far back in time, to Joan’s childhood, and learn of the many steps that have led her to this precise moment in her life. Along the way, Joan goes through many transformations: as an average sized child to a willfully overweight teenager, then to an obsessively self-conscious slender adult who goes through bouts of both anorexic and bulimic behavior. However, these behaviors and transformations, condensed here into a single paragraph, are spread over a few hundred pages. What Joan also accomplishes is becomes a successful romance novelist, a successful literary poet, an accomplice to radical social agendas, a wife, and a religious guru of sorts. But always, despite success, despite even moments of moderate happiness, Joan’s overweight past festers in her; she dwells too constantly on how “I had been the fat mongoloid idiot.” We as readers want to say “Stop thinking about it! It doesn’t define you! You’re not overweight anymore! Nobody cares.” But in the same way Joan’s dwelling on her weight comes festering up in almost inconvenient moments in the text, so does Joan struggle constantly with the weight she long ago lost, now tied in a feverish fear of someone discovering that past.
Mental and emotional relationships specifically to weight gain or loss are things I am not familiar with, and have only encountered through confidential conversations with friends, and the various testimonial-style films and youtube videos shown in psych and health classes in high school. But conflict over body image is familiar territory. Whether it is the strange skin condition I have lived with all my life, or the genuine phobia of exercise I carried through high school and college, I have struggled to comprehend the best way in which I can make my body a reflection of my mind, my feelings, and my beliefs. We all, whether consciously or not, engage with our bodies. We are sexual beings, we are mobile beings, many of us are flesh-eating beings. The body has a long intellectual history. But what makes Atwood’s interpretation of this age old conflict is the distance between the actuality of Joan’s situation and her own perception of it. We know that her past as an overweight woman shouldn’t, and ultimately doesn’t, matter. Most people she hides it from probably wouldn’t care all that much. But that’s not the point. Joan knows. Joan knows, and every time she runs from one of her romantic partners, she is actually trying (and each time tragically failing) to run from herself. What Atwood teaches us is not the radical acceptance that we are perfect beings who need not change anything about us, but rather the idea that we are complex beings who can improve one aspect of our selves while still accepting the other components of our self identity. Being an unhealthy weight is bad, Joan knows and comes to understand that. But entangling ourselves so deeply in this one struggle in our lives without celebrating the other beautiful traits of our identity is an Achilles Heel that many men and women fail to overcome.
What Atwood does is make her novel simultaneously about obesity and not about obesity. Joan’s issues are manifold: romantic conflict, patriarchal sexism, mental instability, religious transcendence. These are what make her such a compelling character, and what drives the text. And yet, always, that relatively short period of her youth when she was heavy is the single most defining aspect that Joan sees in herself. If only she could hear us, cheering her on, telling her that she doesn’t need to worry about it anymore, telling her that she doesn’t need to keep her past a secret. If only she let her guard down, just once, to anyone, and listened to what they had to say. Joan never reaches her epiphanic moment; in the end of the novel, she continues to worry about obscuring her past, even as she enters the threshold of a new romantic relationship who she feels “is the only person who knows anything about me.” What is Atwood telling us? Is she complacently championing radical acceptance? Is she advocating for her main characters’ unhealthy attitude towards her body weight? Or is she gently reminding us that we do not need to follow Joan down her destructive path, rather that we can open our ears and listen when the world tells us “there are worse tragedies in life than ___”
You fill in the blank.